The breathing lungs of a great city.
AT THE opening of Cannon Hill Park, the Mayor had asserted that ''the people are the guardians of their own park''. This was something that working-class campaigners for free parks had been agitating for since at least the early 1850s. The report of that event in the Birmingham Daily Post on September 3, 1873 also af-firmed that ''the great need for vacant spaces where the working population of Birmingham can enjoy pure air and find the means of recreation is so well recognised as to require no demonstration''.
Birmingham's citizens were soon to have more public parks to enjoy and henceforth the council itself would become more important in their provision than would be benefactors - and it was under Joseph Chamberlain's mayoralty of 1873-76 that Birmingham gained its first truly municipal park, in that its purchase was both sought and paid for solely by the Council. This was Highgate Park.
About eight acres in size, it was on the slope leading down from the Moseley Road to Alcester Street and was enclosed by these two streets and by the backs of houses and factories in Darwin Street and Moseley Street.
It had been an enclosed pasture belonging to an Elizabeth Hollier but in her will of 1790, she had left it in trust. The income from the property was to be used to buy coats, gowns and shifts for 12 or more poor men and women of Birmingham and eight or more of Aston. From 1862, there had been appeals by public bodies that the charity's land should be used for a park and eight years later discussions began in earnest. There were several motives for the council's interest.
At its January 1870 meeting Councillor Simmons supported moves to buy the land as at was ''in a densely populated neighbourhood and would be very valuable as a recreation ground''. He had another motive, however, arguing that in its present state the area ''was the resort of all the roughs of the neighbourhood, especially on Sundays''.
Negotiations for the land were protracted but on May 25, 1875, the council paid the charity PS8,100 for its purchase. By now the fences which had surrounded the pasture had come down and as the Birmingham Post described on April 26, 1876 ''unfenced and uncared for it soon became a perfect wilderness, covered in litter, dusty in summer, muddy in winter and, altogether and eyesore to all who saw it''. Now with hard work, thought and PS4,500 it was in the throes of transformation.
Mr Cresswell, of Five Ways, put up the lodge, fences, and gate; whilst Mr Coudrey, the nurseryman and landscape gardener of Ampton Road, laid it out. Their work was supervised by the Baths and Parks Committee of the council and Mr Rodway, the parks superintendent.
The local newspaper was delighted that under Mr Coudrey's hands ''the desert is rapidly being converted into a paradise''.
He divided it into two main portions by way of a terrace 10 yards wide. Plane trees were planted nine yards in from each side of the terrace so that ''in a few years it will provide a pleasant grove''. In the centre of the park a flight of steps led to a broad gravel path which ''diverges right and left around a large plot of grass, nearly circular in form and about 80 yards in diameter''. On the other side of the paths, raised beds were filled with a large variety of evergreen and flowering shrubs.
Below the grass plot was a children's playground 100 yards by 60 yards in extent. This was to be laid with tar asphalt so as to be dry and clean. Indeed the park had a twofold purpose as a children's playground and promenade, as opposed to nearby Calthorpe Park which was popular with sportsmen especially cricketers.
All around the park were tastefully arranged beds filled with shrubs, which after a year or two's growth would shut out the view to the back premises of the adjoining properties.
Trees had been planted plentifully alongside the footpaths to give an abundance of shade.
Above the terrace, the park had been laid out in plots of grass and shrubbery beds divided by pleasantly winding paths. Chestnuts, ashes, laburnums, limes and other trees had been so disposed as to give the ground as much as possible the appearance of a garden. Water pipes were laid throughout. At frequent intervals along them were hydrants so that the park's ''greenness may be preserved by frequent watering in the dry season''.
The reporter for the Birmingham Daily Post stressed that Highgate Park would ''form a breathing space for a heavily populated district''. So it would for Highgate was densely packed with factories, workshops and back-to-backs. Located as it was on the red sandstone ridge above the River Rea, the park also provided ''probably the best view of the southern prospect of Birmingham'' - from the green and pleasant suburb of Edgbaston to the forest of chimneys of all shapes and sizes and church spires of Birmingham.
Here in Highgate Park ''the labour-wearied artisan and other inhabitants of the town will be able to survey the scene of their daily toil at a distance where they might find it interesting without being troublesome, and her, in a little 'oasis' as it were in the desert, they will be able to obtain the recreation they need''.
It was intended to call the new facility Camp Hill Park, but this idea was abandoned as the name was supposed to bear too close a resemblance to Cannon Hill Park. Thus Highgate Park was opened by the Mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, on June 2, 1876 - the same day as Louisa Anne Ryland gifted Small Heath Park to the city.
Historian Robert Dent waxed lyrical that ''no-one who had aforetime crossed the dismal piece of land, crowded with brick-ends and other unsightly refuse - the once pleasant greensward worn bare and brown - would have readily identified it with the exquisite little park, with its broad terrace and winding walks, its shrubberies and bright parterres, and its smooth trim lawns, as it appeared after the transformation''.
As for the Mayor, Alderman Chamberlain, he received the keys for the park and with pleasure opened ''that new garden for its people, and that new playground for their children''.
In his speech, he stressed that he did not need to dwell on the necessity of open spaces. ''The importance of having these lungs for great cities, breathing places for their toiling and industrious population.'' Chamberlain explained that Birmingham's population had more than doubled in a generation. Many who were still alive recalled ''places which now were covered with a wilderness of small houses and smoky chimneys as green fields, pleasant sward to walk upon, and pleasant sights to see''.
Unfortunately, the rise in population had been accompanied by an increase in the value of land that made it impossible for ordinary working men to have gardens attached to their dwellings. Most had to be content with only a yard to look upon, even if were chiefly occupied by a washhouse and ash pit. Useful as these were they were not very beautiful to look upon, and not very conducive to health.
Under such circumstances, Chamberlain was certain that no time was to be lost if they were to provide for the whole population of Birmingham places for recreation and innocent enjoyment within easy reach, if they were to provide for the residents of Birmingham such places as Highgate Park.
He hoped that leading citizens desired ''to keep alive in the hearts and minds of the people some sense of beauty - then the provision of trees with green foliage, of shrubs and of beautiful flowers, was as necessary to their elevation as schools, and libraries, and galleries of art''.
In Chamberlain's mind beautiful buildings, fine statues and pleasant gardens ''were as much a power in the education of the people as any other to which they devoted attention''.
These things ''the rich were able to provide for themselves, but it was the duty of the town council as representing and caring for all the community, to provide similar advantages for all, and to make all partakers in the enjoyments which otherwise would be confined to a few''. The Mayor then declared the park open for the people of Birmingham, and in so doing he ''confided it to the care of the people as their property and for their benefit''.
SHARE YOUR MEMORIES OF BRUM Email email@example.com or write to Letters Editor, Bpm Media, Floor 6, Fort Dunlop, Fort Parkway, Birmingham, B24 9FF
''the labour-wearied artisan and other inhabitants of the town will be able to survey the scene of their daily toil at a distance where they might find it interesting without being troublesome
Children playing at Highgate Park in the 1930s - with the old Rowton House, now the Chamberlain Hotel, in Alcester Street in the background.
Looking from the top of Highgate Park towards the Georgian houses on the Moseley Road in the 1950s.
A woman looks at the flowers by the statue of Edward VII in Highgate Park in the 1950s.
Children at Highgate Park in the early 1900s.